Two male students boosted Montreal Gazette photographer Allen McInnis to the cafeteria window at the University of Montreal’s l’Ecole polytechnique and held him steady on the narrow sill. Police officers had drawn all the cafeteria’s drapes, but at this window a 15-centimetre gap in the curtains remained. The gap was all McInnis needed to photograph the horror inside. Less than one minute later a police officer inside spotted McInnis and furiously chased him away-too late to prevent him from capturing the tragic scene on film. Beyond the curtains was a murdered woman-one of 14 who were killed December 6, 1989, by deranged gunman Marc Lepine, who then killed himself. McInnis threw his roll of film down to Gazette reporter Mary Lamey. “Stuff this down your pants and if the cops come for me, you don’t know me. Get it back to the office!”
On that film was a photograph many people will never forget. It emerged from The Gazette’s darkroom close to 10 p.m.-hours past the paper’s photo deadline-but the editors knew immediately it was the picture they would use. It showed one of Lepine’s victims, her lifeless body slumped backward in her chair, while a plainclothes police officer in the background pulled down holiday decorations which had suddenly become hideously inappropriate. The Gazette ran the picture-which later won McInnis numerous awards-front page, in color, the next morning.
The 75 newspapers that receive Canadian Press wire photos then had to decide whether to publish the powerful picture too. Although newspaper editors frequently make such decisions about tragic photographs, the choice is still difficult. Whether the picture depicts the Montreal massacre, a nude Vietnamese child running from a napalm attack or a little girl severely burned by her flaming nightgown, decisions are not made lightly. Most papers don’t have a hard-and-fast policy because every picture tells a different story. Although many readers may assume a newspaper prints every shocking photo it receives, it does not. Most editors are surprisingly sensitive to the horror they occasionally bring their readers and require sound reasons for publishing a picture that is potentially offensive.
Pictures shock where words cannot. Facts and figures can be forgotten, but images are difficult to erase from the mind. Pictures act like a chisel on the brain, etching images 13 into long-term memory. Remember some of the pictures of the Vietnam War? Remember that nude and screaming little girl running down the road, desperately trying to escape a napalm attack? Can anybody forget?
Publishing photos like the ones that emerged from Vietnam or the Montreal massacre can have a positive effect. They may move people to make changes in society, to make a better world. The Calgary Herald published McInnis’s Montreal massacre picture on its front page. Murray Ball, acting managing editor at the time of the massacre, told the Herald’s ombudsman that “already in the aftermath of this horror public debate has begun on a number of issues-gun control, the impact of violent films, mental health checkpoints. Publication stimulates these discussions and may bring some good out of such awful evil.”
It wouldn’t be the first time publication of a tragic photo effected some change. Former Toronto Star graphics editor Peter Robertson remembers when the Star helped to make children’s nightwear nonflammable. A rash of fires in the early seventies burned several children. The Star published a photo of a four-year-old girl whose flaming nightgown burned more than one third of her body. Subsequently, the issue of setting minimum flammability standards regulations was raised in the federal legislature; months later the standards were set. “Nobody is suggesting The Toronto Star got the regulations changed,” says Robertson, “but the truth is that we sure gave it a good push.”
Not all newspaper editors rationalized the decision to publish McInnis’s photo by hoping some good could result. Surprisingly, the Toronto Sun, a tabloid often called sensational, did not run the photo. Managing editor Mike Strobel thought the murdered woman was twisted into a grotesque position and publishing the photo would go beyond the bounds of good taste. Instead, the Sun ran a picture of one of the stretchers leaving the university. Because the Sun is a tabloid and runs a SUNshine girl on page three, many readers assume it will run the goriest, most tasteless pictures of Toronto’s four dailies, but Strobel says, “Our use of pictures is very similar to newspapers across the country, including some of the most conservative.”
Many lurid photos never see the light of day, but CP rarely holds any photos back; it leaves the decision making up to its member newspapers. However, Mel Sufrin, executive secretary of the Ontario Press Council and the former head of photo service at CP, does remember a few pictures that fell into the “Too Grisly to Release” category. Photographs of an airplane crash at Pearson International Airport showing bloody pieces of bodies strewn over the airfield were deemed too gory and unpublishable.
Clearly, many newspaper editors found McInnis’s picture to be publishable. In fact, the picture won the Canadian Press News Picture of the Year Award and took top honors in the spot news category of the National Newspaper Awards. Although no records are kept, Harold
Herschell, photo editor at CP, estimates at least half of their members used the photo, including The Toronto Stat; The London Free Press, the Calgary Herald and The Ottawa Citizen. In the United States, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee journal and The Sacramento Bee were among those that published it.
Many readers, on the other hand, were outraged. They called the picture sensational, tasteless, insensitive and intrusive. The Gazette’s ombudsman received almost 400 telephone calls and 100 letters from disapproving readers. Many were worried that the woman would be recognized. “Can you animals imagine how her parents must have felt when they saw that picture?” one caller asked. Gazette editor Norman Webster didn’t think the woman could be recognized and says the paper had calls from at least four sets of distraught parents, angry and upset and claiming that it was their daughter in the picture. Webster stands by the decision to publish and says he would publish even if the victim was his own daughter. “The crime was not printing that picture, the crime was the terrible thing that happened.” He apologizes for any extra distress the picture might have caused the victim’s family, but he reasons that the picture was necessary to tell the story with absolute clarity-the woman was caught right where she was and gunned down. “There’s real pathos in that picture. It’s not just graphic and brutal and shocking; it really does tug at the heart-it did mine anyway,” he says.
The problem is that sometimes such images don’t just tug at the heart. They are capable of ripping it out with the ferocity of a mechanical claw. Witold Widajewicz, a medical student at the University of Montreal, told The Toronto Star as the anniversary of the massacre approached that he hopes McInnis’s photo will never again be shown. His wife was the woman in the photo. “This picture kills me. It takes two days out of my life every time I see it. I get so depressed I can’t function.”
The Ontario Press Council, which handles complaints about newspapers, didn’t hear any complaints about McInnis’s photo. Sufrin says this might have changed had the tragedy been closer to home.
Proximity is an important consideration when deciding if a picture is appropriate. The issues of privacy and respect for the dead take on greater importance the closer the event is to home. Most editors particularly agonize over a picture of a local tragedy because their readers are personally involved.
The Edmonton journal, even more distanced from Montreal’s tragedy than Ontario, had no complaints about McInnis’s photo on page three. Instead, the journal’s front page picture of an injured woman on a stretcher drew all the flak. “Several readers said that you could see the woman’s breast, that her nipple was exposed, and they were offended by that,” says ombudsman John Brown. He wonders if the complaints would have been the same had the two photo pages been reversed.
But as -far away as it was, editors at The Sacramento Bee in California published McInnis’s photo on the back page of a news section because they thought it was too graphic for the front. Yet, readers still objected. In a memo to the ombudsman, managing editor Peter Bhatia says the photo would have been looked at differently if the massacre was closer to home. “Was it news? Definitely. Would we have run it if it happened in Sacramento? Probably not.” But regardless of distance, ombudsman Art Nauman disapproves of the editors’ decision to run the photo. “There ought to be room in this craft of news reporting for the application of good taste. We still could have understood the enormity of the event without the picture.”
Not necessarily so, many journalists insist. The enormity of the Montreal massacre required the story to be reported and illustrated as powerfully as possible, regardless of distance. The massacre shocked a nation. “How could this happen in Canada?” many people asked. Marc Lepine became Canada’s Charles Manson. Many papers published shots of stretchers leaving l’Ecole polytechnique. Dramatic, says Robertson, but routine. “The object was to try to convey that something so horrible has happened and seeing somebody on a stretcher doesn’t cut it.” One photo Robertson cannot ever forget showed a mining disaster in Aberfan, Wales. In October 1966, a slag heap of almost two million tonnes buried a schoolhouse filled with almost all the town’s children, virtually wiping out a generation. “Very little of the school could be seen. It was just a pile of coal dust.” That image drove home the enormity of the tragedy.
The Gazette trusts senior editors to exercise good judgment and to avoid sensational and purely exploitive photographs. Ombudsman Robert Walker acknowledges that they sometimes err and doesn’t let the mistakes go by unnoticed. “When we are wrong, I give you my word, I jump on it as hard as I can.”
Mistakes happen because there are no steadfast policies on how to handle tragic photos. The consensus in newsrooms is that every photograph must be judged on its own merit, but some guidelines are followed. Dead bodies or pictures containing a lot of blood rarely appear on a newspaper’s front page, or even inside, unless the story is of great news value. Gazette associate managing editor Alan Allnutt says The Gazette’s readers are often protected from the horrors of the world. “There’s a certain banality to splashing a dead dismembered body in Beirut on page one.” Yet, many newspapers published photos of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife after their executions to prove they were really dead. Suicides are also not illustrated or even reported in newspapers unless they involve a very public individual or the suicide itself had large public impact. If a man commits suicide by setting himself on fire in the middle of Yonge Street, the Sun would probably run that picture, says Strobel, but not one of the suicide of a private individual in his home.
Like photos of suicides, editors avoid publishing photos of grieving people at funerals. This is considered a gross invasion of privacy unless, again, the funeral involves a public individual. One of the most famous funeral pictures is of John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father’s coffin. Sometimes newspapers publish a picture even though it invades an individual’s privacy because of the power of the picture. In March 1989, the Toronto Sun ran a picture of a police officer carrying a young boy to safety after an early morning house fire in Metro Toronto. The boy’s 17-year-old cousin stood in the background crying and clad in only his underwear. This photo ran front page and calls poured in all day. Readers charged that the paper unnecessarily humiliated the teenager.
“This guy is going through hell. Why would you put his picture on the front page?” one caller demanded. In a column the next day, Strobel explained that while there was some element of humiliation for the youth, it was outweighed by the importance of the picture. “We ran the picture because it was a superb news photograph. A superb news photograph tells a story better than anything else. It gives you the emotion and reality that no words can give
Fires don’t happen the way they do in soap operas, with elegant curls pf flame and artistic puffs of smoke. Fleeing victims don’t have time to get composed, to look nice. Real fires are horrifying.”
Former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford, currently the Maclean Hunter chair in communications ethics at Ryerson, says the Sun overstepped its bounds by unnecessarily humiliating the. youth. And running the photo on the front page, where anybody walking by a newsstand would see him in his underwear, made the shot a hundred times more devastating.
A newspaper’s front page is its showcase-the first thing the public sees-and it tells what the editors think are the most important stories and the most powerful pictures of the day. Although the Montreal massacre was reported and illustrated on the front page of the Star, its editors put McInnis’s photo on page three because they deemed it too strong an image for the front.
In cities like Toronto with more than one daily newspaper, competition also plays a big part in determining the front-page photo. The Globe and Mail’s managing editor, Timothy Pritchard, says he isn’t happy when the photo desk chooses a photo he knows is going to be on the front page of the Star and the Sun the next morning. But conversely, editors at the Sun see competition differently. “We always have to think, ‘If we don’t use this picture and the other newspapers do, we’re going to look pretty silly,'” says photo editor Hugh Wesley. He wanted the Sun to publish McInnis’s picture because he didn’t think it was gruesome. “It was basically a body with no life as opposed to a mangled, mutilated body.” Not that Wesley has anything against , showing mutilation. He says tragic photos can teach readers a lesson. In his days as a photographer, Wesley took a picture of a dog run over by a streetcar. “If it made two or three people realize you can’t let a dog run loose downtown without jeopardizing its life, then the picture served its purpose.”
It is arguable whether tragic pictures actually have the desired educational or preventive effects. Printing a gory picture and then saying somebody might learn something from it is too simple an argument-any picture could be justified by that statement.
Showing a mutilated dog on the streetcar tracks to teach people to keep their dogs on leashes just doesn’t have the same significance as showing a napalmed village in an attempt to end a war.
Most newspaper editors have legitimate reasons behind decisions to publish. They try to balance the media’s job of reporting the news with the sensitivity of the paper’s readers.
“The depth of feeling that a photograph can elicit from your public can be terrifying,” says Robertson. “The still picture allows you to spend time looking and thinking. Television doesn’t do that. I think that’s probably why TV gets away with as much as it does.”
There are some things we never forget because of pictures. Maybe all the outrage aimed at newspapers for publishing tragic pictures is because we want to forget. Forget crime. Forget destruction. Forget war. But to do that we would have to forget reality. Reality may be harsh, but it can’t be ignored, and it is important that we remember not to shoot the messenger for showing it to us.